HTML Help Workshop = Epic Fail.

Anyone who has wondered why the help systems in Windows applications are typically so abysmal has to look no further than Microsoft’s HTML Help Workshop. Not only is rotting tripe more pleasant to deal with, it’s more likely to help you get the job done.

You’d think that maybe an application designed for editing help files would have a decent help system. Not so.

After trying to figure out the interface to HTML Help Workshop and failing (after getting screens full of incomprehensible errors) I went in search of an application with a less counterintuitive interface. I found HelpNDoc. It looks a lot prettier, but it’s also completely incomprehensible. It might not be all that bad, but after my HHW-induced brain meltdown I just didn’t have the patience to decrypt the interface.

I guess if you were meant to be able to get useful information out of the help files for an application they would have made it easy. Failures like Microsoft HHW are why the software training industry is a massive cash cow.

I ended up falling back on the manual method — creating the index, table of contents, and individual topic files by hand. This is the same method I used when creating the help files for PixelSwapper. To put it in perspective, having to do so is just as retarded as writing a letter to your congresscritter using a hex editor because your word processing program is too terrible to use.

Luckily the file formats are well-documented. Not so much by Microsoft, but by the folks who made the Win32 API usable — wxWidgets. I’ve used wxWidgets extensively, and if you’re going to write an app for Windows without using .NET it’s the only sane way to go. Down the path of pure Win32 lies madness. Yes, the Windows API was designed by Cthulhu. Luckily he has since moved on to the world of embedded design and development (cellphones mostly), so post-Win32 Windows programming is no longer painful.

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